By Grant Stevens - Sports Editor
Nov. 7, 2012 — This past Sunday, University of Kentucky Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart found sanctuary in the old saying “enough is enough,” with the expected firing of Head Football Coach Joker Phillips.
Saturday’s 40-0 shellacking at home against Vanderbilt was the worst loss the Kentucky program has suffered to the Commodores in 96 years, not to mention the stadium’s attendance had dwindled to less than half its capacity.
Phillips’ 12-23 record over three seasons was certainly reason enough for any AD to pull the trigger, as the gun had been smoking for a while now between the lines at Commonwealth Stadium.
In this week’s “In The Post,” we’ll take a look at who was the real “joker” in this equation. Was it Phillips’ inability to produce? Or does the punch line lie elsewhere?
First off, let’s examine the history (notice I didn’t say successful) of Kentucky football.
Let’s be honest, basketball comes first in Lexington, and it has been this way since the days Adolph Rupp himself commanded the boys in blue from the sidelines.
Mediocrity at best has been the name of the game for Kentucky football, at least during my lifespan of 25 years. To get an idea of this, since I was born on March 3, 1987, the Wildcats have had just seven winning seasons, four of which came under the direction of Rich Brooks.
There is no greater example of where UK football stands in Lexington than what came from the mouth of one of football’s most well-known commanders, in Paul “Bear” Bryant. Believe it or not, before his departure in 1953, Bryant had the Kentucky program competing at a championship level year in and year out.
Finishing with a record of 60-23-5, Bryant also brought the school its only national championship in 1950 with a 13-7 victory over No. 1 Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl.
Several weeks prior to the showdown in New Orleans, Bryant made a memorable quote at the Quarterback Club convention in Oklahoma City, “The other night we had a joint basketball-football banquet and Adolph Rupp (Kentucky basketball coach) was presented with a big four-door Cadillac. All I got was a cigarette lighter.” AP article, “Cites Stonewall Wildcat Defense," Dec. 9, 1950.
Three seasons later, Bryant left Kentucky for Texas A&M before making history at Alabama, and the Wildcats never recovered.
Sure we’ve seen decent seasons, but we’ve never had the type of success that Bryant cemented during his eight-year stint.
In a 1966 Sports Illustrated interview, Bryant admitted that the focus on Adolph Rupp and basketball had an impact on his decision to leave the commonwealth. “The trouble was we were too much alike, and he wanted basketball No. 1 and I wanted football No. 1. In an environment like that, one or the other has to go.”
Bryant’s comments in that feature define the atmosphere of Kentucky football. Coaches leave for a variety of reasons, but with the Wildcats, the amount of attention devoted to the football program will most likely always come second to basketball, and that’s just the way it is.
Phillips’ forced exit from the sidelines at the end of this season means another start-from-scratch scenario for the UK football program.
Let’s not jump on Phillips too much for his inability to produce wins. Involved with UK football for 20 years as a player and coach, the Wildcat alum did not lack passion for the “Big Blue Nation.” Sometimes nice guys do not necessarily make good coaches, and this is one of those times.
Like most people in this area, I want UK to have success on the football field, but in order for this to happen, the powers-that-be must be sure they enter this coaching search with the attitude that the football program is a No. 1 priority and not No. 2.
Grant Stevens can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by telephone at 1-800-247-6142.